New Vision

enjoy the journeyIn his sermon at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church on Aug. 24, 2014, Mark Ramsey spoke about the Emmaus journey and how two weary, grieving disciples had bet their lives on the wrong savior. “After three years of imagination-stretched living, they can’t imagine how their time will be filled other than some wish-dream cobbled together by the tyranny of immediate and the already known.”

While my situation is not the same, I can relate all too well. I started out my adult life as a freelance violinist/violist in the Kansas City area with a vision of being in a professional orchestra. After traveling to one audition in a city I can’t even remember, I thought long and hard about whether my dream was realistic. I also thought about what achieving this vision would entail.

During a difficult time of discernment, a pastor suggested I consider the ministry. At first, I was taken aback. Me, a minister? No way! Like the disciples, I had bet my life that God was calling me to be a professional musician. I had imagined I would spend my time serving God by playing in an orchestra, doing freelance work and teaching. All my years of practicing and imagination-stretched living, seemed to have been for nothing.

However, as I thought about it, it made sense. While continuing with my private students and doing some freelance work just to make sure I was on the right path, I took classes part time at Central Baptist Seminary. When I felt called to give up my music contacts in Kansas City, I transferred to Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta, GA to finish my degree.

I loved the theological discussions seminary provided. It was a difficult year after graduation before receiving my first call but God did call me to a church in Atlanta. I am thankful for that call because I learned quite a bit about what being a pastor meant. After a few years though, it was time to move in. I was in the process of looking for another position when my car accident happened. A new vision was harder for me this time since lack of awareness is one of the hallmarks of a brain injury. It took me a long time before realizing I wasn’t going to be a pastor of a church again.

Years have passed and depression has always been part of my journey. It’s a hallmark of brain injury and I’m not immune to it at all. It’s appeared over and over again these past 18 years. Recently it’s been a problem and I’ve been dragging for several months now but yesterday, I had a little glimmer of hope. I’ve seen therapists for years and it’s my belief that anyone in a helping profession must see one. While I am no longer in a “helping profession,” I am, and will always be, “a helper.”

I’ve had a difficult time connecting with someone here in Asheville though. It’s important to find the right fit, which finally happened. In my session yesterday, I was able to express some of my feelings and concerns and got in touch with parts of myself often buried. We are often hurt by what is buried without even knowing what is happening. Yesterday, I glimpsed a better future for me. I still grieve for what I’ve lost but now I’m looking forward to what’s in store.

There was a quote in the bulletin on Aug. 24 by Peter Gomes, Minister of Harvard’s Memorial Church, 1970-2011. “When people come to The Memorial Church on Christmas Eve and on Easter Day, I always say, ‘If you have come for an explanation this evening, or this morning, and you want me to explain the virgin birth, you are in the wrong place. Why don’t you leave now? Leave the seat for somebody else, and we will get on with it.”

Resurrection, new life and new visions, are not easy. I have no idea what the future holds for me but I’m going to keep on the journey even though I can’t imagine how it will unfold. I’ve seen too many folks in their 50’s and 60’s who give up because they think it’s too late for them. I don’t believe it’s ever too late for a new vision or a new resurrection. I believe Resurrection happened long ago and it still happens today.

I’m going to enjoy my journey.

Busy, Busy, Busy

My experiment to try to be more involved with things is certainly a bit of challenge for me now. When I was in Atlanta, I often became overloaded cognitively which meant too much information was coming at me and the only way I could handle it was to shut out the world for a few days. I also experienced mental fatigue since I have fewer neurons in my brain now. I vividly remember being so tired I had to lay on the sofa for a couple of days until I could function again. So when I moved here to Asheville, I dropped out of everything. The problem? I got bored. Now I’m trying to find some balance.

Next week, I have something four nights in a row. On top of that, I have other things I need to do on Sunday. My responsible side wants to do it all but because of my TBI, this no longer is posssible. The realty is, in our society everyone is too busy. Those of us who have brain injuries and other disabilities have to slow down and I believe we can teach the rest of the world this wisdom.

As for my schedule, I’ve made the decision to skip some events. I do understand folks tend to give me a “pass” because of my disability but I think everyone needs to really stop and ask themselves why they are so busy. Does it make us feel more important if our calendars are full? Are we afraid to spend time with those we love? Do we think we are following God by having a packed schedule?

One of my Facebook friends posted the following prayer by Thomas Merton today in celebration of his birthday. It’s a prayer I need to hear just now.

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

I do not know where I am going just as I didn’t know back in 1996 when I had my TBI. But it’s not just me. Many of us don’t know where we are going. I need to make choices so I can enjoy what God has given me and not have to spend my days sleeping on the couch! Like before, God will lead me through this wilderness. As Merton said, I may have no idea what is happening but it will happen. I do believe that God is always with me, and I will not be left alone.

Do you feel you’re too busy? How can you adjust your schedule so this isn’t the case? If you have a brain injury, do you struggle with your limitations?

“On Our Way”

Funeral Procession of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, April 9, 1968

Funeral Procession of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, April 9, 1968

Mark Ramsey and Kristy Farber, the two pastors at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church here in Asheville, NC are doing a sermon series on communion, baptisim, funerals and marriages. Last Sunday the day before Dr. Martin Luther King Day, Mark preached about funerals. I couldn’t help thinking, “Now how in the world is he going to preach about Dr. King and funerals in the same sermon?” Somehow, he managed to do so and I must say I was impressed with his thoughts.

Sermons are funny things. Mark preached this neat sermon about Dr. King and funerals and somehow I connected it to my own personal issues. I think this happens a lot which is what is great about sermons and worship services. God speaks to each of us through them often in ways the worship leaders do not even imagine. To hear his sermon, click the following link:
(There’s a real good chance I put this in wrong so in case I did, go to the web side http://www.gcpcusa.org then click on sermons on the right side. Next click on “On Our Way.”)

In it, Mark said that funerals call us to do three things. 1) Tell the truth about our lives 2) Lift up the promises of God 3) Due to this opportunity to look back, we are propelled forward. As I thought about his words, I realized that having a brain injury calls us to do these very same things. In the beginning, I would never share that I had a brain injury. In fact, I was advised by folks to keep it quiet. Since you wouldn’t know I have a TBI by looking at me, this was pretty easy. .

The problem? I was miserable. I didn’t like hiding the fact that I couldn’t remember someone’s name or I got lost all the time. I hated having to find a place by myself where I could “rest my brain” by putting in my ear plugs for a few minutes and closing my eyes. I do know that our world is set up for us to hide our true selves in order to “make it” and be successful. I’m fortunate that I receive disability benefits so I don’t have to fake it and boy did I ever fake it. I so wanted to be like everyone else by earning my own way in this world.

However, now that I’ve stopped “faking it,” I’m much happier. I recently had an expereince when I was talking to a man about his wife. I know both of them fairly well but I couldn’t remember her name and had to ask him what it was. Five years ago I would have faked it but then I just blurted out “Tell me your wife’s name?” He looked at me a little funny but I suspect he figured out it was an example of my TBI challenges.

I’ve also had many opportunites to tell folks what God has done in my life. Oh I may not do so directly but it is clear that God has been with me all throughout this journey and God is not going to leave me now! When I look back and see what God has done in my life, I am driven to serve God in the future.

Along with the picture printed above in the bulletin was a quote from one of Dr. King’s prayers. “O God, we thank thee for this golden privilege to worship thee. We come to thee today, grateful that thou hast kept us through the long night of the past and ushered us into the challenge of the present and the bright hope of the future. We thank thee for thy Church founded upon thy Word, that challenges us to do more than sing and pray, but go out and work as though the very answer to our prayers depended on us and not upon thee. Then, finally, help us to realize that we were created to shine like stars. Keep us, we pray, in perfect peace, help us to walk together, pray together, sing together, and live together until that day whan all God’s children, Black, White, Red and Yellow will rejoice in one common band of humanity in the kingdom of our Lord and our God, we pray, Amen.”

God has called those of us who have brain injuries to walk together and work so that others will not have to experience this same trauma. And if we meet someone who is a survivor, we are called to walk together with them for this is not an easy journey. However they,nor are we, ever alone.

What do you think about Mark’s three things we do in funerals? Telling the truth about our lives, lifting up the promises of God and being propelled forward? Can you relate to any of these in your life? I think this applies specifically to folks who have a disability or other challenges but it could also apply to anyone.

Church

I have a birthday tomorrow and birthdays always drive me to reflect on my life.  My reflections this year are about all the different churches in which I’ve been a part.  I grew up Methodist, directed a small church choir at a Disciples of Christ Church, and ended up joining a huge Presbyterian Church (Village Presbyterian) in Kansas City. (6000+ members) 

I joined this church because I had played violin there for numerous music programs and I liked the church’s social justice stance on issues.  In fact this is where I became involved in the Peacemaking program and other Presbyterian social justice programs.  I look back on this now with wonder.  How did I ever survive in a church that big?  I even was what is called “under care” there when I studied to be a minister.  This means the church supports and encourages you as you go through the ordination process.

My first call was at a church in Atlanta in an upper middle class, white neighborhood.  I was only there for three years before my automobile accident.  Three years is not very long but I was searching for another call when I sustained my brain injury.  I knew my accident was serious because I had to learn how to eat, walk, use my hands, keep my balance and do cognitive things like read,  all over again.  However it wasn’t even in my realm of possibility that I would never serve a church again.  I figured I just needed more time.

So I first dived into volunteering at the Open Door Community which is a residential Christian community sort of like a Catholic Worker House that served folks who are living homeless as well as those in prison.  That didn’t work so I tried volunteering at a local Hospice.  That didn’t work so I walked into the Chaplains office at a retirement community and asked if they could use a volunteer.  The lead Chaplain had time to give me a tour and said he could use me.  He is a very busy man and I don’t know how I lucked out meeting him that day, but I did. Finally, something that worked! 

This is so often how it is with brain injury survivors.  It’s a “trial and error”  (see post 8/19/11)  sort of thing for we often don’t fit into our prescribed world anymore.  In fact, all people with disabilities don’t fit into this world and it can be a very lonely place.  I am awed by the strenghth and perseverance of folks who have disabilities.  The world is not made for us so we have to carve out a place. 

So while volunteering there, I served on a couple of Presbytery committees as well as a couple of committees at the church I was attending (Oakhurst Presbyterian, a multi racial congregation). I was involved in several projects that came up and led worship, at times even preaching at various places.  Quite frequently my brain would just do what I call “shut down.”  This meant I couldn’t focus or do anything at all but rest.  So I often spent days laying on the sofa with no stimulation around me at all.  I always bounced back and returned to my schedule again.  Back and forth this went.  

It was starting to wear on me and I began to realize that I would never serve a church again as a minister.  About that time, my husband Michael took a job in Asheville, N.C. which meant moving.  For anyone who has sustained a brain injury a change in surroundings is very, very difficult.  We don’t do well with unexpected or unknown environments. I decided the best thing for me to do was to stop all involvement in everything and just become familiar with Asheville

I’d heard about Circle of Mercy congregation when I was in Atlanta so I decided to become part of this progressive church even though it wasn’t Presbyterian.  It meets on Sunday evenings so I could still attend a Presbyterian Church in the morning.  Since I purposely wasn’t going to get involved at either place and planned to just attend church, going to two wasn’t a burden.  Much of my energy went to figuring out my new city, new schedule and finding volunteer work.  Again, I tried volunteering at two different nursing homes and doing some volunteer clowning  but discovered this didn’t work for me so I had to try something else.

After a while I did join a committee at Grace and became more involved there but it was limited.  I also became part of the Pastoral Care Team at Circle of Mercy.  Being involved in both churches peaked my interest in ideas surrounding ordination, sacraments, justice ministry and worship services since the two churches have differing views in all these areas.  It’s pushing me to think about what I believe and not what a church tells me to believe.  However, both churches are very open and I don’t feel pressure from either one to believe a certain way.  For this I am grateful.

Someone with a brain injury needs to do repetitive  and steady things.  I have tried this but I was bored to tears.  My neurologist sympathized with my feelings and supports my idea of trying to be involved in more ministerial type things.   When I use the word “ministerial” I mean using the parts of me that I used when I was a pastor – not trying to actualy be one.  However, I must set limits and this is very hard for me.  This idea isn’t going to work and I’m going to be stressed out like I was in Atlanta if I don’t set these limits.

I’m not a pastor of either church and I don’t want to be. However, I can’t help regretting this greatly.  I liked being a pastor! I must say, it is nice not having all the responsibilities and pressures of one. I don’t have to worry about what I say etc. since I’m not getting paid by anyone.   I’m sort of a “freelance pastor” a little like when I was a freelance violinist/violist all those years ago!

When I look back, I see how far I’ve come.  I still worry about what people think about me but I’m getting to the point where I don’t care.  I know what I’m doing and if someone wants to talk to me about this, they can.  If they don’t, then it is their problem and not mine.  (This is much easier to write than to actualy believe!) 

    

"Seeking Imagination"

This past Sunday at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, Kristy Farber preached a sermon that really affected me.  Her title was Seeking Imagination and I remembered thinking to myself that morning, “What does Mark 8:27-38 have to do with imagination?”

On top of that, the following quote by Anne Lamott was printed in the bulletin by the picture above. “Can you imagine the hopelessness of trying to live a spiritual life when you’re secretly looking up at the skies not for illumination or direction, but to gauge, miserably, the odds of rain?” This quotation really appealed to me since figuratively speaking, I’m always gauging the odds of rain in my life.

I’ve never been a lectionary preacher but I’m beginning to see how using a lectionary can be good for the life of the church.  I think sometimes there’s a danger in making the text fit what the preacher wants to say to the congregation and I was a bit fearful that Kristy was going to this this.  However, the Spirit moved through her and spoke to my needs and I suspect to others as well.

In it she said, “If we are going to deny ourselves and try to be more like Jesus, we may need to exercise our imaginations.  To do so may be a part of denying ourselves. Attempting to see, not just what we have always seen, not just what we have been taught to see, but the things God may have for us.”

My TBI really messed up my dreams.  I wanted to be a pastor who preached more regularly than what I had been doing at the church I served.  I wanted to be involved in urban ministry and do more pastoral care.  The plan was I would be the breadwinner and my husband Michael would get a PhD in Anthropology or Psychology.  Our accident certainly ended that dream – not right away though.  Awareness is a huge issue when someone has a brain injury.  People just aren’t aware of how the brain injury has affected them.

For some folks, knowledge of one’s abilities can take a long time as it has in my case. For those of us who don’t have a lot of noticeable difficulties, it can be even harder.  I am able to do quite a bit now. However, when I push myself to do too much I’m usually no good for a day or so.I have to deal with the effects of cognitive overload, over stimulation, mental fatigue and others things.  As a result, I make choices.  Is what I want to do worth being out-of-commission for a few days or not? .  Many brain injury survivors do not have this choice which for me is a blessing and a curse.

I often must read again the poem Welcome to Holland by Emily Perl Kingsley. She tells the experience of raising a child with a disability.  For the whole poem go here. http://www.our-kids.org/Archives/Holland.html  In it she writes, ‘The important thing is that they haven’t taken you to a horrible, disgusting place full of pestilence, famine and disease….  It’s just a different place.  It’s slower-paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy.  But after you’ve been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around, and you begin to notice that Holland has windmills, Holland has tulips, Holland even has Rembrandts.” 

The pain of having a TBI is never going to go away but I don’t believe God allowed this to happen to me for a reason. Instead, God uses the things that happen to us so we may have new life.  God is as sad about this justy as I am but as Kristy said in her sermon, “As we seek to follow Christ, to deny ourselves, let us pray for the vision and insight to see this world through the eyes of Jesus, the one who brings life out of death and hope in unexpected places.”

I ask for God to help me imagine something different than my shattered dreams.  It will take a while.  It has already taken a while.  As Kingsley said, “But if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn’t get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things about Holland.” 

And there ARE some lovely things here!

Gabby Giffords


Gabby Giffords squelched all talk about whether she would run again for another term in Congress by resigning this week. I must say, I am not at all surprised. A part of me was fearful that she would run again for lack of awareness is very common for TBI survivors. I thought I could go back to full time ministry and figured I would be able to do this after resigning as an associate pastor. I volunteered as a chaplain at a retirement center thinking eventually I would go back to full time ministry. After doing this for several years, it became clear to me this wasn’t going to happen.

She has received much attention in the press. I can’t imagine having to deal with the challenges of TBI while being so much in the public eye. I would love to see her recover to the point where she could work as a congressperson again but I really doubt that will happen. I remember my TBI therapists tried to steer me away from ministry but I wouldn’t listen. I was convinced I would be back.

I think I am ultra sensitive to any talk about working as I did before. I want Gabby to go back to Congress while at the same time, I would be jealous if she did. Thoughts would probably flood my mind. “Why did God let her go back to what she loved, but didn’t allow me to return as a minister? What is wrong with me? Did I not try hard enough?” Today I just have to tell myself to stop thinking this way. It serves no purpose and I only feel worse when I do.

I looked at that “Welcome to Holland” piece again. (Feb. 9, 2011) It helps me see the things I have gained among the losses and how the pain of this is never going to go away. I’m also reminded that in many ways, I’ve become stronger. Gabby and other brain injury survivors in the public eye are helping folks become more aware of this injury and that’s a good thing. Every brain injury is different and just because someone else can return to what they did before, doesn’t mean everyone can. (And if I’m totally honest with myself, I don’t know a single survivor with an injury as severe as mine, who has been able to return to the job they had before.)

Today a friend gave me a wonderful gift. She made some moon earrings for me to wear. Moons are a powerful symbol for me and I will wear them as a reminder of the moon which shines brightly in the dark sky despite everything.

What are your thoughts about Gabby Giffords? If you are a survivor, what has changed for you and what has if anything, remained the same or gotten better? See top right for commenting instructions.

Fifteen Years


On August 26, 1996, I sustained my traumatic brain injury in a car accident. Water and rainbows had always been healing to me but throughout these years on my journey, they’ve been a real comfort. When I was first injured, we lived in an apartment in Atlanta. I couldn’t drive yet but I would often take my little dog, Abu, for a walk to a stream by my apartment to “get away from it all.” Abu played in the water while I sat and relaxed, deep in thought. For me water and rainbows are signs of hope.

Fifteen years ago, Michael and I drove a couple of miles from our apartment to get some frozen yogurt. Michael made a left hand turn onto our street but forgot he was using a standard transmission so he miscalculated. We were hit and both of us were injured, he less so than I. We were taken to two different hospitals where I was put into an induced coma to prevent brain swelling. I don’t even remember the first hospital since after a couple of weeks, I was transferred to another facility which had rehab for brain trauma survivors.

In the beginning, I had planned to go back to full time pastoral ministry. I pronounced endless lists of words until I could learn to speak clearly. I did activities to help my cognitive functions. I even began volunteering at a retirement facility as a chaplain until I was ready to work as a full-time minister again. Slowly but surely, I became aware that I would not be able to work as a full time minister again.

Awareness is part of all survivors’ journeys. Rep. Giffords is on this journey now and it is not an easy one at all. It’s especially difficult because one never knows how much brain function will return. In the beginning, I improved by leaps and bounds and it looked like I’d be able to work again. I began leading devotionals at the center, attending numerous meetings and writing short pieces. The problem was, sometimes my body would completely break down and I’d spend a few days in bed sleeping. I always returned to the same work load which meant more times of rest. Many folks in the brain injury field cautioned me about doing too much but I didn’t understand what they meant.

It became a never ending cycle. I would get depressed when I needed to rest but yet I refused to cut back. It wasn’t until we moved to Asheville, NC in 2004 when I dropped out of everything. I didn’t have any church meetings, no volunteer commitments and no preaching or writing commitments. I spent all my time getting used to a new environment which was enough challenge in itself. After battling my insurance company who thought I could be working, I settled into a calm existence.

Yet I became bored. I needed some challenge, some sort of goal or I would go crazy! Harold Kushner, the author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People helped me here. Genesis says, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. The earth was formless and chaotic, with darkness covering everything.” Kushner continues, “Then God began to work His creative magic on the chaos, sorting things out, imposing order where there had been randomness before. He separated the light from the darkness, the earth from the sky, the dry land from the sea. This is what it means to create: not to make something out of nothing, but to make order out of chaos.” (I added the bold.)

So a little at a time, God is helping me make order out of the chaos of brain injury. I can do a lot but I must be careful about what and how I do it. I can preach, write and do other things but I can’t do them all together as I could before. I’m learning to make choices. I still want to take on too many things so this is a process for me but every year, I get better at it. I’ll never have it completely worked out but that’s okay. One of my favorite passages of scripture is Isaiah 43:19 “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” God creates order out of chaos which means there is a road through this wilderness of life.

If you are a brain injury survivor, do you see order in your chaos? Or are you in the midst of chaos and wonder how you’re going to survive? Many of us who are survivors have been there so please know you are not alone. See above right for commenting instructions. Due to a glitch I’m not able to comment here but I read every one. Hopefully, this will be fixed soon. If you’d rather contact me directly write puffer61@gmail.com